A painting hangs quietly on the wall. Some people walk by quickly, not pausing to even glance at the colors on the canvas. Others peek at the patterns and note the lines but continue on. One man stops and takes a breath, soaking in the swirls and serene shapes of the painting on the wall.
For many people, visual art is something to pass by, but for others, it is a vital part of life and learning.
Mark Magleby, director of the Museum of Art (MOA) and professor at BYU, explained the importance of the visual arts in a student’s education.
“The visual world is something that the digital age has made more accessible to us,” he said. “Visual art is just as important as literary heritage in past cultures and past civilizations. The visual arts give you a clue as to the very nature of previous civilizations as you look at their priorities — what were they depicting, what were they not depicting. It becomes a hierarchy of their values.”
Students study Roman civilization by studying their sculptures and architecture, the Egyptians by their stonework and paintings and Native Americans by their bead work and cloth. Studying the visual arts can help students understand not only past civilizations, but present cultures as well.
“Cultures have depicted themselves as they want to be seen by themselves and by outsiders,” Magleby said. “Visual art is often the best thing a culture can produce.”
Interpreting and studying art can seem like a tedious process, but people can study art on many different levels.
Marian Wardle, curator of American art for the MOA, explained that on one level, people can analyze structure and pattern, while on another, they can connect with the art and feel what the artist felt.
“The artist is a member of a particular community and society at a particular time,” Wardle said. “As such, his or her work reflects that particular historical or social moment. A work of art is an experience that happened in the past and continues to live in the present. Just like good literature, it can speak to your art and it can speak to your mind.”
Wardle said students don’t have to enjoy only the traditional arts, but rather, they can explore other forms of visual art like quilts and vintage posters.
Martha Peacock, art historian and professor at BYU, studies specifically 17th-century Dutch domestic imagery, which depicts Dutch women in various settings. She said studying women in Dutch art helped students understand both historic and present domestic roles.
“It gives them a kind of new respect for their gender and see the kind of impact they can make historically,” Peacock said.
James Swensen, professor of art history at BYU, loved the time he spent with students abroad studying the visual arts in Europe. He explained why all students should make the visual arts a part of their education.
“More people are not seeing things and exposing themselves to really remarkable painting, sculpture and ideas during their college career,” Swensen said. “Those are things that will benefit your life. Anything we can do to increase our understanding of (the) visual arts will benefit every part of us.”